After more than a year of working from home, many are wondering what the return to the office will look like. Some want to stay remote, others are itching to get back into the workplace – but a large majority want the best of both worlds, with a few days a weeks at home, and a few in the office.
Surveying 1,500 Brits, office pod designers Meavo found 74% of the 1,500 Brits surveyed miss the human interaction provided by offices – but over a third agree working two or three days a week in the office is likely to be the new norm.
Claire McCartney, a senior policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says companies are on board, too. “We expect those offering home working on a regular basis to double in comparison to pre-pandemic levels, which represents a shift, from 30% to 60%,” she says.
If the predicted boom in flexible working takes place, it could contribute an extra £148 billion to the UK economy by 2030, saysMcCartney, adding: “Such forecasts could help convince employers to embrace this future.”
Working a hybrid model of at home and in the office seems feasible. So, what could possibly go wrong? Here are a few things that could stand in the way – or at least complicate – the perceived ease of the flexible working dream.
Co-ordinating office days could be tricky
There’s no doubt going back into the office will increase ideas-forming, as well as interacting with others – and these can be integral to work, says Adam Steel, strategic foresight editor at The Future Laboratory. “Chance encounters improve productivity,” he says, “and naturally, this is hard to replicate at home.”
Striking a longterm balance of hybrid working may be tricky. “One of the main challenges would be developing ways of knowledge-sharing and team collaboration when employees are not all co-located,” says McCartney.
What if, for example, some employees choose to work Mon-Wed in the office, while others prefer working Thurs-Fri? “It’s important to have work structures [in place] that support homeworkers and office-based employees,” she adds.
It may be that two or three days per week become non-negotiable in-office days, for instance, to ensure everyone on the team has at least some face-to-face working hours.
‘Presence bias’ may be more... present
Another challenge will be making sure workers are treated the same, wherever they work, says McCartney. There’s the historic idea that being present in the office is somehow ‘better’, an issue prevalent in Japan’s working culture, where many office workers traditionally haven’t been able to leave their desks until after the boss has left for the day.
To avoid people in the office being favoured over those working from home, companies must make sure ongoing access to development and career conversations for all employees, says McCartney – “and make sure there is a fair allocation of work and opportunities,” she adds.
″[They must] avoid ‘presence bias’ – talk to the person best suited to do the work, not the one sitting next to you.”
“Talk to the person best suited to do the work, not the one sitting next to you.”
WFH may look different with new tech
New technologies are being designed to mimic the feeling of an office and help us work better – whether we’re together physically or not. Part of the work-from-home approach in the longterm might be incorporating these products into your everyday, says Steel.
“Facebook is building on the functionality of its virtual reality software as an alternative solution for remote working,” he says. “Infinite Office, as the product is known, aims to replicate a physical office environment.” Sounds intriguing.
While wearing a VR headset, explains Steel, people can customise multiple displays – controlled by hand movements – as well as type using a physical platform and have virtual meetings. The idea is that it’ll allow employees to feel like they’re in the room with colleagues to facilitate collaboration.
Will this go down well? Those wanting to work from home might not be as keen on an environment that mimics the office.
The way you work may depend on where you work
Working a longterm hybrid WFH-office model may mean you work differently throughout the week. This could require a bit more planning than what you’re used to. Having a brainstorming meeting for a new project? Perhaps you need to go into the office. Working on long presentation for the next morning? It might be a day to lay low at home and get your head down.
“It might be helpful to plan for more collaborative team working to take place in the physical workspace, while deeper thinking work could be prioritised at home,” says McCartney. “Organisations will therefore need to think through what space will be required and best designed in terms of what it will be used for.”
Offices may look to diversify their offerings, adding breakout spaces to mimic the privacy we experience working from home, adds Todor Madzharov, from Meavo. “It will be even more vital for employees to have a place to retreat and escape their noisy surroundings, so they can focus, speak in privacy and feel less stressed.”
You may have to ask for it
While many businesses are already having conversations about a future of flexible working – and some have done away with offices altogether – other companies may not yet be embracing flexibility.
McCartney recommends putting forward “a strong business case” for the arrangement you suggest, “highlighting why it would be good for your organisation and how you might deal with any challenges that arise.”
It’s also worth leaning on the simple fact that home working has supported greater work-life balance, saysMcCartney – appealing to the human side of employers as well as the business side.
But, she adds, it’s also important to demonstrate that you know your rights: “All employees have the right to request flexible working if they have worked for their employer for a minimum of 26 weeks.”
It’s important to remember flexible working hasn’t been the reality for everyone. Two fifths of employees haven’t been able to work from home at all, says McCartney, because the nature of their job.
Flexible working can mean many things – for example, if work is tied to a particular spot, employers could negotiate start or finishing times, to allow a different sort of flexibility. “We need to ensure greater flexibility for them also,” she says.